blues, rock-a-boogie, Boogie-woogie - call it what you like, blues fans
and piano lovers will Jump For Joy over the new release by Mitch Woods
and His Rocket 88s. The San Francisco bluesman, long known for his
showmanship and flair onstage, has finally realized a long-running
dream; to get back to the jump blues sound of the great big-band
Forties. Woods is no mere revivalist - his music appeals to blues lovers
and rock and rollers as well as dance fans.
There's a lot to be excited about on Jump For Joy,
Woods says. "This is really my full-on jump blues album. We did it with
a big band, it's all original tunes written as they were back in the
Forties." Woods has an impressive group of sidemen, including Bay Area
guitarist Danny Caron, whose credits include music director for Charles
Brown, and saxman Michael Peloquin's velvet horn arrangements. Produced
by Woods and Bay Area producer Joel Jaffe, this record really takes the
big band motif to heart in a rootsy blues style.
"I think the arrangements of the tunes are a big reason for the big
band sound. In keeping with that, we didn't concentrate on solos per se;
I do four piano solos on The Whole album," Woods says. A prolific
songwriter who often writes with a humorous bent, he unabashedly calls
this batch of original tunes "classics, just really great songs."
Jump For Joy marks
the first time Woods has worked with a producer; he had always
self-produced his records before. "With a group this large, it was very
helpful to have Joel there, he had a lot of creative input and great
ideas," he says. The end result is all Mitch Woods, however - big,
belting boogie tunes with a smooth crooner's style laced perfectly with
his non-stop, pounding piano licks.
Lest anyone sneeringly suggest that Woods is trying to make good on
the now-fading swing craze, rest assured that the feisty pianist scoffs
at the notion, and with righteousness - years before yuppies discovered
vintage duds and the Lindy Hop, Woods was doing his thing. "I consider
myself mainly a jump blues player, but for years I would always have
swing dancers come down to my show. We always swung," says Woods.
Anyway, what's in a name? Woods, ever-vigilant historian of the
seminal Forties music scene, likes to point out that self-professed
swingers have mislabeled themselves. "What people are calling the swing
movement, it's really jump blues, and that's what we've been playing
since we started, and that's why we fit in the swing movement. They call
it swing, but it's jump. The best dance music is jump blues, period."
Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88s have always borne the torch for this
uniquely American blues musical heritage, not for two years but two
decades. Taking their inspiration from the great jump n' boogie outfits
of the late 40s and early 50s, they breathe fresh life into the music
that gave birth to rock n' roll.
Woods styled his group after the jumpin' n' jivin', shoutin' n'
honkin', pumpin' n' poundin' bands of Louis Jordan,
Wynonie Harris, Joe
and Jimmy Liggins, Amos Milburn, and
Roy Milton. Adding a healthy dose
of New Orleans rhythm and blues, piledrivin' piano, and some of his own
contemporary playful lyrics, Woods and His Rocket 88s forge their own
brand of music they call "rock-a-boogie."
Born in Brooklyn in 1951, Mitch Woods began playing classical piano
at eleven, but his real initiation into blues and boogie piano had
already been assured at age eight. "My mom would hire this
superintendent of the building, a black man, Mr. Brown, to take me to
school, and we stopped off at his cousin's house, where somebody was
playing Boogie-woogie piano. It really hit me."
Woods was putting together bands in Greenwich Village by his
mid-teens. By the time he entered the University of Buffalo, Woods was
sitting in at local clubs and discovering records by boogie woogie
pioneers Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. It was during
a class on Afro-American music taught by noted jazz sax player Archie Shepp in 1970 that Woods finally realized he was bound to be a piano man.
Perhaps it was Shepp, a known curmudgeon, who cemented his resolve in
an offhand way, Woods remembers. "I was very interested in learning
about this music, but it turned out to be reverse racism, he was putting
down white people a lot, and I was one of about three white kids there,
but I had a love for black music, I wanted to learn about it. Blues and
jazz, I wanted to learn about that culture, where this music came out
of, and he said, 'There's no white guy that can play the blues,' and I
said 'Hey, I don't agree with you.'" "He said, 'Well go ahead and name
me one white guy who can play the blues,' and I named guys like
Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, he says 'They're not so great,' and I said
'Well, I can play.'"
As if to say "oh yeah?," Shepp challenged Woods to attend a local jam
session. "I steeled my nerves, I went down to the session, and
fortunately for me there was no piano there, but at that point he
respected the fact that I came down." That broke the ice - Shepp gruffly
accepted Woods and they became close. "He started telling me about who
to listen to, but he still kept his opinions." Woods came to San
Francisco in 1970, and for the next five years performed as Mitch Woods
and His Red Hot Mama (with singer Gracie Glassman). One night Oakland
guitarist HiTide Harris heard Woods opening for Charlie Musselwhite and
was reminded of the sound and theatrics of early R&B pioneer Louis
Jordan. Indeed, Jordan has always been a primary influence on Woods. "I
actually did see Louie Jordan in Oakland. He was the bridge between
swing and rock and roll. He would do a five or six piece band, get a lot
of power out of that."
That kind of power was to become rallying cry for Mitch's next
project, Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88s, which started in 1980 and
quickly rose to the top of the Northern California club circuit. Their
first album, Steady Date (Blind Pig
Records) got hot reviews in 1984 and led to appearances at two San
Francisco Blues Festivals, openings for the Fabulous Thunderbirds,
Stevie Ray Vaughan., The Blasters, The Neville Brothers, and James Brown.
By 1987, Woods was doing a six-country Europe tour highlighted by a
rousing performance at the Belgium Rhythm and Blues Festival.
In 1988, the 88s released Mr.
Boogie's Back In Town (Blind
Pig Records) and music pundits started to acknowledge Woods' place in
the ranks of American music: "Woods lays down an authentic 50s-vintage
rock piano groove, comparable in power and and rhythmic nuance to
classic recordings by the young Jerry Lee Lewis," said Keyboard
On 1991 album Solid
Gold Cadillac, Woods and his band were joined by Ronnie
Earl, Charlie Musselwhite and the Roomful of Blues Horns. Woods himself
was starting to become a guest star, appearing on that year's new
releases by John Lee Hooker and John Hammond, and the boogie pianist
headlined both the Amsterdam Blues Festival and the Montreal Jazz
Woods was developing his passion for bandleading and discovering the
power of being a strong singer. "I'll always consider myself a piano
player, but my voice has developed over the last few years. It's an
incredible release, when you can sing, it's like blowing an axe, and
it's great to entertain an audience," he says. Another interest was
taking hold, too - the funky piano-driven music of New Orleans. Woods
had long been infatuated with the music of the Big Easy. "I'm a boogie
woogie and blues piano player for the most part, but I also incorporate
other styles within that, like the New Orleans influence. New Orleans
R&B piano playing, like Dr. John, of course Professor Longhair. I've
been going to jazz festival every year, performing at the clubs; I
played piano night at Tipitina's."
"New Orleans has been a really great source of inspiration, it's a
piano town. New Orleans reveres the piano player. People respect me and
I appreciate that. I've always been able to feel a real sense of music
there; if you're a good player, you get in. I work there as much as I
can," Woods says. "I've gotten to play with all the great players who
live there, and I just hire them, guys from Fats Domino's band, like Red
Tyler, sax player, Johnny Vidakovich, drummer with the Professor, and
George Porter on bass.
Woods toured constantly in the mid-1990s, stopping long enough to put
out Shakin' the
Pig Records) in 1998. Woods wrote all but one song, demonstrating how
well he's absorbed the conventions of blues and boogie woogie music,
further proving his ability to inject new life into these vintage forms.
Woods also realized another dream in 1998 when he brought together some
of the surviving kings of the American blues legacy, like John Lee
Hooker, James Cotton, Johnnie Johnson, Earl King and Lee Allen, to make Keeper
Of The Flame(Lightyear/WEA Records), all paired with Woods
in a wonderful run of classic tunes.
The new album continues Woods' spin down the boogie road. He had
always followed the boogie greats like Louie Jordan and Louie Prima, but Jump
For Joy keyed off a new influence. "I started to listen to
Cab Calloway, and this new one has lots of Cab influence; six horns,
eleven-piece band with doubled horn lines. He (Calloway) had a great
entertainment style, very similar to Louie Jordan's, and that's what
we've gone for here," he says.
Woods says Jump
For Joy will
unite all factions in the dress-up-and-boogie scene. "Aside from the
blues audience, we've been developing The Whole swing crowd, so this
will appeal to the swing dancers as well as the blues lovers." It's
about time; the swing fad is peaking and Mitch Woods is the perfect
practitioner to school all those wannabe acts that were all fluff and no
stuff. "I'll always play my music, whether it's the in thing or if
there's only two people in the bar, and it will feel just as good either
So get your saloon shoes and dig Jump
For Joy! Mitch Woods has gone the limit, writing sassy
boogie tunes and crafting smooth arrangements that evoke the heyday of
the dancehall Forties. When you grab onto this fine batch of swingin'
tunes, you'll just want more from Woods and his infectious boogie jump
- Ed Ivey